EU Sets Out Virus Pass Plan to Allow Free Travel by Summer

BRUSSELS (AP) -

With summer looming and tourism-reliant countries anxiously waiting for the return of a steady influx of visitors amid the coronavirus pandemic, the European Union’s executive body presented a proposal Wednesday that would allow the bloc’s 450 million people — vaccinated or not — to travel freely across the 27-nation bloc by the summer.

The plan, which will be discussed next week during a summit of EU leaders, foresees the creation of vaccine certificates aimed at facilitating travel from one member state to the other.

“We all want the tourist season to start. We can’t afford to lose another season,” European Commission Vice President Vera Jourova told Czech public radio. “Tourism, and also culture and other sectors that are dependent on tourism terribly suffer. We’re talking about tens of millions jobs.”

The topic has been discussed for weeks and proved to be divisive. The travel industry and southern European countries dependent on tourism like Greece and Spain have been pushing for the quick introduction of the measure, which could help avoid quarantines and testing requirements.

But several member states, including France, argued that it would be premature and discriminatory to introduce such passes since a large majority of EU citizens haven’t had access to vaccines so far.

According to data compiled by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, less than 5% of European citizens have been fully vaccinated amid delays in deliveries and production of vaccines. The European Commission, however, remains confident it can achieve its goal that 70% of the EU adult population is vaccinated by the end of the summer.

To secure the adhesion of all member states, the commission proposed that its so-called Digital Green Certificates, which should be free of charge, would be delivered to EU residents who can prove they have been vaccinated, but also to those who tested negative for the virus or have proof they recovered from it.

“Being vaccinated will not be a precondition to travel,” the commission said. “All EU citizens have a fundamental right to free movement in the EU and this applies regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not. The Digital Green Certificate will make it easier to exercise that right, also through testing and recovery certificates.”

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the certificates “will help boost tourism and the economies that rely heavily on it” while Europe’s aviation sector urged EU governments to ensure the passes are operational in time for the peak of the summer travel season.

The commission proposed that all vaccines rubberstamped by the European Medicines Agency should be automatically recognized, but also offered governments the possibility to include other vaccines like Russia’s Sputnik or China’s Sinovac, which haven’t received EU market authorization.

The European Commission guaranteed that “a very high level of data protection will be ensured” and said the certificates will be issued in digital format to be shown either on smartphones or paper.

EU officials also hope that vaccine certificates will convince the member states that have introduced travel restrictions aimed at slowing down the pace of new infections to lift their measures. The EU’s executive arm has previously warned six countries that their travel-limiting measures, which in Belgium go as far as a ban on nonessential trips, could undermine the core EU principle of free travel and damage the single market.

The commission said the certificates should be suspended once the World Health Organization declares the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If agreed by the EU leaders, the proposal will need to be approved by EU lawmakers to enter into force.